Pella Dutch

Pella Dutch: Portrait of a language in an Iowa community, an expanded edition. By Philip E. Webber. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011. Pp. xxix, 163. ISBN 9781609380656. $19.95.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

The first edition of Pella Dutch appeared almost twenty-five years ago, and the work is now available as a paperback that has been expanded and revised. The new version contains an updated preface: here, Philip E. Webber not only focuses on the changes that have occurred in Pella since the original publication but also provides the reader with an extensive selected bibliography of works that have appeared since 1988.

Pella is a small community in Iowa, founded in 1847 by religious separatists from the Netherlands. Today the town boasts a population of approximately 8,000 inhabitants and remains proud of its Dutch heritage, as exemplified by an annual Tulip Time Festival and by a commitment to Dutch-style architecture. Most interesting, however, is the fact that there are still some speakers of Dutch in Pella, and a significant part of this work deals with the topic of the Pella Dutch dialect.

W set out to write a sociolinguistic investigation of Pella. His book is divided into three parts. Part 1 contains a general description and overview of the town’s inhabitants, their ancestors, and their place of origin in the Netherlands. Part 2 deals with the preservation of the town’s unique culture. Part 3 focuses on Pella Dutch language samples that W observed and analyzed. These samples were volunteered by forty percent of approximately 250 functional speakers whom W managed to locate and contact. As can be expected, the majority of Dutch speakers has retired and is among the older inhabitants of the town. Thus, it is clear that the Pella Dutch dialect is endangered.

In his treatment of the language, W concentrates on the tone of typical conversations, which he reports to be peppered with playful humor, folk wisdom, and proverbial observations. He indicates that visitors from the Netherlands quickly notice that the Dutch spoken here is quite different from Standard Dutch, and, at times, they may disparage the speakers’ language use. The author provides a comparison between Standard Dutch and the language spoken in Pella, describing some differences that he occasionally traces back to the dialect of the Gelderland region, where most of the early immigrants came from. In most cases, however, it is obvious that English influence accounts for a particular feature.

Although this book is sound and well researched, it was not written specifically for an audience with a background in language study and linguistics. As a result, the linguistic description may appear impressionistic to scholars of Dutch. The book, nevertheless, offers an interesting and lively report of the fate of an immigrant language and culture in the United States.